Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sustainable Design: What Qualifies & What Does Not?

Sustainability has made successful inroads in day to day functioning of organisations. Use of energy-efficient devices, minimizing usage of paper, green buildings are some examples. Also individuals today are more conscious. They now segregate household wastes, voluntarily use public transportation, reduce water and electricity usage. However much scope for sustainability gets locked-in in design stage. An energy efficient building by design saves lot more than any retrofits or conservative usage can. It is similar to engineering design of the product that decides the reliability, ease of manufacturing and maintainability later on.

While making our business plan on E-Waste recycling, we stumbled upon a similar issue. Electronic waste has plastic, glass and various metals, all mixed in them. Disassembly of electronic products is not an easy task. But then we came to know about a directive from EU which suggests electronic manufacturers to design the products for ease of dismantling to facilitate their recycling. In this age of high consumerism, where products have short life, ease of disassembly for recycling certainly qualifies as a sustainable design. However, from my aeronautics experience, in design there is always a compromise among the wishlist parameters. The question is that whether a mobile company will agree to compromise on other design features (like style, feel, function, cost etc..) to make their phone easily recyclable?

Not long ago we used pencils made out of wood. Then due to concerns over cutting of trees and deforestation, pencils made of plastic came to market and became an instant hit. But then plastic pencils were not entirely bio-degradable. What can be a sustainable design in this case? A pencil made out of bio-degradable plastic or a wooden pencil manufacturing company with a system in place to plant new trees to offset its usage of wood. A case in point is the sustainable palm-oil effort from Unilever, where they try to ensure that the raw material does not come from deforestation but from a source where Palm trees are replenished after they have been cut.

As evident from above examples, a sustainable design not only considers proper disposal of product but also considers proper source of raw materials for the product. A typical 'Cradle to Cradle' (a term coined by Walter R. Stahel in 1970s) approach.

Hence a sustainable design may have following qualifiers:
- The raw materials used are either coming from a closed loop recycling process or from environment where the source is being replenished.
- At the end of its life, the product may either decompose into nature or is broken down to be used as raw material again.
- The product itself shall not cause any harm to environment during its useful life.

At first glance, these would look enough as qualifiers for sustainable design. But if one looks deeper, one will realize that the affects of processing and handling are not being considered. A mobile handset made of recycled parts can be hailed as a sustainable design, but what if the production process entails release of toxic chemicals, CO2, toxic gases and excessive water usage? What if the Palm oil production plant is very polluting though using the raw material from a sustainable source?

So we add one more qualifier to our list.
- The processing and handling of the product, till it reaches the customer hands, shall not harm the environment.
Closed-loop manufacturing and Green transportation are some means by which one can achieve the above qualifier.

Its easier said than done to make a integrated design which satisfies all the four qualifiers. Logistic partners, manufacturing partners, suppliers and even customers (to ensure proper disposal) have to work together to make a perfect sustainable system. Many companies attempt to do it in their own way and succeed in satisfying some of the qualifiers. Unilever works with suppliers. Walmart works with the logistics and stores design. Preserve, a recyclable plastic goods manufacturer, works with customers by establishing collection points at food stores.

While meeting the above qualifiers, it is important to avoid 'Over-Kill'. Its similar to over-design of a product without any value engineering. A real life example being, a British supermarket selling single bananas, each wrapped in recyclable paper tray covered with recyclable plastic. Now what stops them from selling cover-less single banana with price sticker on its skin? Similar is the case of Eco-blings, which cost lot more and do not provide any significant savings. Such designs do not add any significant value though they may fool one to believe so.

Now I wish to leave the readers with some food for thought. We are aware of motion sensors being used in restrooms and other places which switch on and off the lights. These devices are hailed as electricity savers. But on other hand such sensors continue to consume power throughout their life (also known as Phantom power). So is it a sustainable design? Or the old wisdom of switching the light on when entering and switching it off when leaving is too difficult for humans to follow. Can any technology that saves humans the effort which is rightfully theirs to do can be hailed as sustainable design?

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